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The state political watchdog agency Thursday fined two recently retired Santa Rosa parks and recreation department officials for accepting thousands of dollars in free golf rounds, lessons and merchandise discounts from the operator of the city-owned Bennett Valley Golf Club.

As expected, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission voted 4-0 to approve a $6,500 fine for former department director Marc Richardson and a $3,000 fine for former parks development manager Rich Hovden.

Both men had struck settlement agreements with the agency. Neither appeared at the hearing, but afterward Richardson issued a written statement.

"I apologize for what happened," Richardson wrote. "I didn't realize the trouble my actions caused at the time and should have; however, looking back I can see the violations and accept responsibility."

Richardson retired in December after 27 years with the city. Hovden retired in February after 41 years with the city. Their departures followed an investigation by City Manager Kathy Millison prompted by an anonymous letter pointing out that Richardson golfed at the course nearly every Saturday and never appeared to pay.

"If this is true, it just doesn't seem right, since he must have a pretty good salary with the City, and the rest of us, who are probably not as fortunate, always have to pay, and have seen the fees go up a lot lately," states the letter, signed only by "Golfer."

The city hired a private investigator, whose report confirmed that Richardson and Hovden had been accepting the free course access and other gifts for years from course operator Bob Borowicz.

The city asserts the entire report is a secret document, citing an exemption to the state's public record act for "personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Both men repaid Borowicz in December and retired shortly thereafter. Richardson repaid $5,324, and Hovden repaid $4,479.

Since neither had disclosed the gifts as required on state financial disclosure forms, both were required to file amendments listing all the gifts. City Clerk Terri Griffin alerted the FPPC's enforcement division to the potential violations. The amended filings formed the basis of the FPPC's charges.

Richardson faced three charges. One was failing to disclose gifts over $50, which is required for all top city officials. He was fined $1,000 for it.

He also was fined for accepting gifts over the annual limit, which was $390 in 2007 and 2008 and $420 for 2009 to 2012.

The FPPC noted that in the year ending June 12, 2012, Richardson accepted $1,496 in gifts from Borowicz and was fined $2,000.

The most serious offense was the conflict-of-interest accusation. The FPPC noted that Richardson was receiving the free golf and other gifts from Borowicz during the time that Richardson negotiated a 10-year contract with Borowicz. He also negotiated an amendment to the contract increasing green fees in June of 2012, according to the FPPC.

Richardson told the FPPC he believed the two actions saved the city $1.6million and that he "did not consider free course access a gift given his supervisory responsibilities" in the department. For this charge, Richardson was fined $3,500.

In his statement, Richardson also cited the savings to the city.

"I do want folks to know that the contracts we negotiated with the golf course operator were reductions to his compensation for course maintenance that saved the city $1.6 million," Richardson wrote. "At this juncture I have made my amends, paid the fine and will count my blessing and move forward."

Hovden was charged with failing to report gifts over $50, for which he was fined $1,000, and for exceeding the annual gift limit for four years, for which the fine was $2,000.

He, too, told FPPC officials that he did not consider the free golf, cart access, driving range access and merchandie discounts to be gifts because the course is city-owned and under the management of his department.

In its decision, the FPPC stressed the need for accurate reporting of such gifts.

"Failure to report all required information ... deprives the public of important information about a public official's economic interests and it has the potential to conceal conflicts of interest," the FPPC said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

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